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Examples of Coping in Context

INCIDENT

It was the beginning of January - a cold, but sunny day. A mother (Daniela) and father (Joe) were enjoying a date night out at their favorite restaurant. Their daughter (Naomi) was enjoying the last few days of her winter break from school by ice skating at a local rink with some friends. As Daniela and Joe were finishing their meal, they received a phone call about their son, Lucas, a 20 year-old college student. He had been taken to the hospital and was in critical condition. By the time the family arrived at the hospital, Lucas’s heart had stopped and he was unable to be revived.

0-3 MONTHS

Mother: During the first several months after his death, Daniela was numb. She couldn’t focus on anything other than replaying what must have been her precious son’s last moments. She could not find reason or meaning in what had happened. 

“I don’t know how I can keep going after this.”

Soon she began avoiding talking about what happened, often changing the subject when her friends or coworkers asked her how she was doing. Sometimes, she would imagine that he was still away at school, enjoying his sophomore year of college. At dinner every night, she’d chatter about other things to fill the silence – the new restaurant in their neighborhood or an upcoming movie. She wanted her family to be okay, and she was determined to make it so by ignoring that Lucas’ death had ever happened.

“I should’ve been home more. I should’ve spent more time with Lucas when I could. Maybe if I hadn’t missed going to that baseball game with him for a work trip, he’d still be here.”

Father: After Lucas’s death, Joe was stunned. He was filled with guilt, feeling like he should have been able to somehow prevent Lucas’ death, but there was nothing that he could do that would bring Lucas back. He thought about Lucas all the time and looked at family albums and Lucas’s old high school yearbooks. He wished he had been able to spend more time with him. 

“Doesn’t anyone care about how I feel?”

Sister: Lucas’ 17-year-old sister, Naomi, struggled after his death. While her parents received sympathy, with neighbors dropping off dinner and friends bringing flowers, Naomi felt lonely and ignored. Her own grief over her brother’s passing was overshadowed by her parents’, and she felt resentful of her parents.

“Mom is trying way too hard to pretend like nothing happened. I hate being at home now.”

She missed arguing with her brother over who got to choose the next TV show to watch, and she hated the awkward conversations with her parents at the dinner table, where one chair was now conspicuously empty. Naomi felt like no one else could possibly understand how she was feeling.

At a party a few weeks after Lucas’ death with some of her friends from high school, Naomi decided to have a few drinks to try to forget what had happened and have fun, and the few drinks turned into more and more.

[Click here to learn about how Daniela’s reactions affected the family.] - Daniela’s avoidance hurt the family’s interactions with each other. Instead of looking forward to quality time together, Naomi began to dread it. Joe, meanwhile, tried to reach out to Daniela and ask her to talk about Lucas, but Daniela refused, making Joe feel frustrated and lonely.

[Click here to learn about how Joe’s reactions affected the family.] - Daniela felt like Joe spent too much time reminiscing about the past, and wanted him to move on from it. While Naomi appreciated Joe reconnecting with Lucas’ past, she felt somewhat neglected while her father focused his time on her deceased brother.

[Click here to learn about how Naomi’s reactions affected the family.]- Daniela didn’t seem to notice Naomi’s mood, as she tried to make sure there was no time for the family to talk about the elephant in the room, but Joe wondered how Naomi was dealing with Lucas’ death. But every time he tried to talk to her, she refused to engage with him, so he eventually let her be.

[Dialogue:

Joe: Hey, Naomi, how are you doing?

Naomi: I’m fine.

Joe: How was school today?

Naomi: It was fine.

Joe: Listen, I know the past few weeks have been hard, but–

Naomi: I’m fine, Dad. I have to do homework. I’ll talk to you later.]

3-6 MONTHS

Mother: As time passed, Daniela slowly returned to her usual daily life. But after months of avoiding the topic of Lucas’ death, when she came across a memory on social media or was reminded of Lucas by finding a guitar pick that had fallen behind the couch, Daniela started feeling overwhelmingly guilty for all the things she hadn’t done with Lucas. They’d never get to finally take a family trip to New York City this summer or see him graduate from college. She wished she had talked to him on the phone more often and insisted he come home from school on more breaks. Over time, when these distressing thoughts occurred to her, Daniela began looking for ways to distract herself from them, and began focusing more and more on her job.

[Thought bubble: “I’ve heard my supervisor say he needs more help on this project. I wonder if I could join it. That might take my mind off of things.”]

Father: There was one picture that Joe kept coming back to look at…The wide smile on Lucas’s face reflected his pride and the happiness of that moment. It was a picture of him with his guitar and his bandmates after they had played for their school’s pep rally. Joe remembered Lucas’s excitement when he came home and told the family all about that day - how their band had gotten the crowd so riled up and that everyone was talking about them and how great they were after it ended. 

[Thought bubble: “Those were good times…”]

Joe had always liked music, but never learned how to play an instrument. Looking at that picture of Lucas inspired him to try his hand at playing the guitar too. Learning a new instrument helped him take his mind off the daily struggles without Lucas, but also made him feel closer to Lucas as he was able to obtain a glimpse of how important music was to his son. Being able to play through a few songs also allowed him to understand how music can be an emotional release in times of stress.

Daughter: Soon Naomi started drinking regularly, even coming to school tipsy a few mornings. Her grades started to slip, but she managed to hide them from her parents. Naomi started distancing herself from her friends at school, who didn’t understand why she had changed so much. 

 

[Thought bubble: “My friends don’t understand what I’m going through at all.”]

[Click here to learn about how Daniela’s reactions affected the family.] - Joe and Naomi both worried about Daniela as she spent less and less time with her family, but neither of them could pull Daniela from her work. Naomi felt ignored and abandoned by her mom, while Joe found other ways to occupy his time that also helped him feel connected to Lucas.

[Click here to learn about how Joe’s reactions affected the family.] - Naomi liked hearing her dad play Lucas’ favorite song – even if she didn’t tell him, it was comforting to her in her grief to hear the familiar chords in the house. But Daniela was frustrated by Joe’s persistence at talking to her about Lucas, and began to withdraw from her family even more to avoid his conversations, his memories of Lucas, and his new hobby of playing guitar.

[Click here to learn about how Naomi’s reactions affected the family.] - Joe worried about Naomi – she seemed more distant than usual – but he figured she was just being a teenager. Even when she stayed out later than she used to, Joe assumed she was just enjoying her last few months of high school. Daniela was largely oblivious to Naomi’s change in behavior. She asked Naomi for cursory updates when she saw her, but most of the time, she was trying to find a way to forget.

6-12 MONTHS

Mother: Eventually, Daniela threw herself fully into her work to distract herself from Lucas’ death and her thoughts of what she wished she could change. She volunteered for extra work and helped her coworkers with projects, causing her to spend hours overtime at work. When she got home late in the evening, missing dinner time with her daughter and husband, Daniela immediately went to bed. On the weekends, she brought home her laptop and worked from her office, even eating her lunch at her desk. Her husband, Joe, tried to show her pictures of Lucas and his bandmates, and even brought his guitar into her office to attempt to serenade her with Lucas’ favorite song.

 

[Dialogue:

Joe: Hey, I think I finally figured out this song! Do you want to hear it?

Daniela: Joe, I have to finish this really important project for work. I don’t have time. I’m sorry.

Joe: Are you sure? It was Lucas’ favorite, remember? He sang it at the school talent show one year.

Daniela: I’m really busy right now. Maybe later.

Joe: Okay. I’ll practice it a few more times so it’s perfect for you.]

But Daniela always said she was busy and asked him to leave. Soon, Joe stopped stopping by her office, leaving Daniela to spend most of her time alone, working. 

Father: Sometimes Joe drove to one of Lucas’ old band’s concerts and watched them play from the back of the room. It wasn’t the same as seeing Lucas again, but he liked knowing that he was participating in something Lucas loved. He continued learning to play the guitar, but he also began playing an informal game of basketball with a local group every Thursday night. He’d played basketball often when his kids were younger, but as everyone grew up, he had eventually abandoned it. Getting back into the sport and interacting with friends helped Joe come to terms with being more than just a bereaved father. While he still missed Lucas and tried to honor him every day, he also got to know himself better.

[Thought bubble: “I know I won’t ever feel the same as I did before Lucas died, but I’ve also learned a lot since his death.”]

Daughter: One afternoon, her best friend, Olivia, met her for lunch at a local cafe and mentioned that she noticed Naomi struggling, and asked how she could help. 

[Dialogue:

Olivia: I’ve noticed that you seem to be struggling with something. Do you want to talk about it?

Naomi: I guess so. Ever since Lucas died, I feel like I’m drowning and nobody cares. 

Olivia: I remember that happened when my grandma died a few years ago. Everybody wanted to know how my mom was holding up, but everyone seemed to forget that I was the one who spent summers at her house growing up. 

Naomi: That’s exactly it! I feel like I’m not allowed to be sad.]

 

After their conversation, Olivia began calling Naomi every night to talk, even just for a few minutes, and Naomi agreed to text her when she felt low. Soon Naomi began to rely on her friends more than substances.

[Click here to learn about how Daniela’s reactions affected the family.] - Naomi and Joe felt distanced from Daniela, and Naomi felt even more abandoned by her family.

[Click here to learn about how Joe’s reactions affected the family.] - While Daniela disliked Joe’s attempts to engage her, Naomi liked seeing her dad connect with her brother, even if she didn’t mention it at first. Eventually she began to stick around when Joe broke out his guitar, and even encouraged Joe to learn more songs.

[Click here to learn about how Naomi’s reactions affected the family.] - Joe noticed a big change in Naomi over the next few months. She seemed happier, more than she had ever been since Lucas’ death. She was frequently surrounded by friends, and began to express interest in Joe’s activities memorializing Lucas.

1-2 YEARS

Mother: On the anniversary of Lucas’ death, while Joe decided to visit his grave, Daniela planned a busy day, filled with an early morning exercise class, work, and meetings with clients in the evening. But Joe eventually persuaded her to accompany him and Naomi to Lucas’ grave, and Daniela found the experience extremely cathartic. She began to work towards not avoiding the subject of Lucas’ death, and instead focusing on how to honor him. She still sometimes slipped and wanted to withdraw from her life and busy herself with work, but gradually, she began to adjust to life without Lucas.

Father: Over time, Joe was able to adapt to his changed life. He was able to function and continue to participate in new hobbies, though Lucas was never far from his thoughts. He wanted to be sure that other families would not have to endure the type of experience he had been struggling with, so he joined a local chapter of a group that advocated for parents who lost their children. He found that volunteering with this group helped him feel more agency after Lucas’ death and hoped he could make a difference in someone else’s life.

Daughter: Realizing how much support she had found with her friends, Naomi joined a virtual support group for teens experiencing loss, where she made more connections to people experiencing the same thing as she was.

Naomi still struggled with Lucas’ death and missed him often, but with her friends’ support, she was able to move past using substances to cope. By the end of her senior year, she pulled her grades up, committed to a university she was excited to attend, and graduated with her friends – and parents – at her side.

[Click here to learn about how Daniela’s reactions affected her social circle.] - With Daniela avoiding her friends and family, gradually she became more and more isolated. However, once Joe persuaded her to visit Lucas’ grave, Daniela decided to make a change, and gradually became more engaged with others again.

[Click here to learn about how Joe’s reactions affected the family.] - Although deeply impacted by Lucas’ death, Joe’s coping eventually resulted in the family beginning to feel more united again.

[Click here to learn about how Naomi’s reactions affected her health.] - Since Lucas’ death, Naomi made a lot of progress in her substance use and feelings of loneliness and sadness. She still struggled sometimes with not turn to alcohol when she was struggling, but she knew it would be worth it in the end. Without using substances, her mind felt clearer, and she found she was able to participate more fully in activities. 

[Click here to learn how these reactions affect X’s physical health.]

5 YEARS LATER

Joe, Daniela, and Naomi began meeting every year at Lucas’ grave on the anniversary of his death. Even after Naomi graduated college and started her first job away from home, they never failed to remember that day and spend it as a family. On the fifth anniversary of Lucas’ death, each of his family members wrote letters to him including updates on their lives, memories shared with him, and more. Although life would never be the same without Lucas, the family was able to find a new meaning and purpose in life after his death.